Become part of the ‘community tradition’ of gamelan music at EHCC

  • Photos by HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    East Hawaii Cultural Center board chairman Stephen Freedman plays in a gamelan ensemble at the center in Hilo.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Yvette Eve Hinojosa plays in a gamelan ensemble at the center in Hilo.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Carol Walker leads a gamelan ensemble at East Hawaii Cultural Center in Hilo.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald James Stapleford plays in a gamelan ensemble at the center in Hilo.

A cool breeze blows through the open upstairs windows of the East Hawaii Cultural Center on a recent Wednesday afternoon as eight people gathered in a small room sit in front of an array of gamelan instruments.

There are drums, xylophone-like instruments of varying sizes and bronze pots and gongs, both large and not-as-large.

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Gamelan is Indonesian orchestral ensemble music that includes, among others, a number of bronze and percussion instruments.

Carol Walker, who brought the instruments with her to the Big Island from Indonesia last year, leads the class, which meets at 4 p.m. each Wednesday at the cultural center in downtown Hilo, where they are learning to play.

On Walker’s count this recent Wednesday, the group begins to play and the percussive beats start. Brassy, ringing tones fill the space and vibrate the wood floors beneath your feet.

Slow and steady.

Chiming and resonant.

The beats are rhythmic and almost hypnotic.

As the song progresses, the tempo picks up before it slows to a halt. The deep sound of a large gong reverberates through the room.

Music making and practice continues during the course of the next hour.

“I lived in Indonesia for 17 years and studied gamelan there and had my own gamelan, but I was always planning to retire to Hawaii,” Walker said. “I arrived here in May of (2018) and I brought my gamelan with me and it’s much too large to keep at home.”

Fortunately for Walker, the East Hawaii Cultural Center was interested in using the instruments.

According to Walker, there are gamelan-like traditions and a few other similarities to other musical traditions throughout Asia.

“Gamelan is very much a community tradition,” Walker said.

And while some classical pieces can be played with a few people, much of the repertoire should be played with as many as 15 to 20 people, she explained.

Walker said Indonesia has many different gamelan traditions.

The class, which meets weekly at the EHCC, is Javanese gamelan, but Walker said Balinese and Javanese ensembles are used to accompany portrayals of the Hindu epic “Ramayana” along with shadow puppets — famous in Indonesia — as well as for traditional ceremonies such as weddings.

While there are similarities between the styles, Walker said Balinese gamelan is more lively while Javanese seems to be slower and more meditative.

The new class began meeting this summer.

“Our group is definitely a beginner group,” Walker said. “We don’t play the complex instruments. Everybody’s learning together at the same time.”

Typically, between six and 10 people meet for class on Wednesdays.

“I’d like to see it become very well established,” Walker said about the group, adding that they’re “very lucky” because the University of Hawaii at Manoa has a well-established gamelan program with some “world-class players there.”

Jinah Janus said she has attended class weekly for several months.

“I’ve traveled in Indonesia before and I knew how beautiful it sounded,” she said. “I loved listening to the performances there.”

Janus enjoys playing the music and said it’s amazing the class is even offered here.

“I think we’re lucky it’s here,” she said.

EHCC board chairman Stephen Freedman also attends the class.

“Gamelan is great collectivist music and it’s kind of interesting participating in the music that has no star parts,” he said. “I think culturally it’s kind of good for this community because most of our contemporary musics are very oriented around a front person and this is made up a large number of simple parts which come together to make (music).”

Freedman said he has visited Indonesia in the past.

Freedman said one of focuses of his chairmanship on the center’s board is to create a cultural welcoming place, and he thought the gamelan music would be suited to create a “signature cultural event” around which people in the community could congregate.

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Class meets at 4 p.m. Wednesdays and, according to Walker, people are welcome to join the group at any time.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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